Tonja Yalung, seen here being congratulated last March by Maricopa County School Superintendent Steve Watson for winning a 2017 Rodel Exemplary Principal Award is principal of Kyrene de los Ninos Elementary School. Though the award is based on a documented history of student achievement growth, a positive school culture and an active engagement of parents and community, the formula for the state's new school-grading system produced a "C" for Ninos.
AFN file photo

As it released letter grades for Arizona schools, the state Board of Education on Friday gave some written advice to school districts that boiled down to one reality: For now, they may not mean as much as parents and educators think.

Stressing that the grades were “preliminary,” the board announced it had created a committee “to conduct independent analyses of data, based on public input, for potential revisions to the A-F Accountability Plan.”

That “technical advisory committee” is staffed by people who were not part of the panel that devised the grading formula – which Kyrene School District officials had warned penalized high-performing schools and gave an unfair picture of student performance overall.

Moreover, the board immediately set 10 public hearings between Oct. 10 and Nov. 5 to “gather public input for potential revisions to final letter grades for school year 2016-2017 and in upcoming school years.”

The formula also came under withering criticism from Matthew Ladner, a senior advisor for the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Writing about his “growing sense of dread as I trudged through page after page of extreme complexity regarding the state’s plan to grade schools A-F,” Ladner declared:

“If Jurassic Park scientists spliced the DNA of a Franz Kafka nightmare with a Rube Goldberg machine, it would look something like this.”

The board released the grades Friday, Oct. 6 – three days before it intended to – after it encountered criticism for escorting two reporters off its premises the day before when they showed up asking for the grades.

The grades for schools in Ahwatukee ranged between “A” and “C.”

Of the three Kyrene middle schools in Ahwatukee, Akimel A-al got a “C” while Altadena and Centennial received a “B.”

Among Kyrene’s elementary schools in Ahwatukee, an “A” was awarded to Cerritos, Colina, Esperanza, Lagos, Monte Vista and Sierra; getting a “B” were Estrella, Lomas and Milenio.

Of the two Tempe Union high schools in Ahwatukee, Mountain Pointe got a “B” and Desert Vista an “A.” Horizon Honors’ elementary and secondary schools got an “A.”

Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely briefed the governing board on the grades at its regular meeting Oct. 3, reiterating how the complex formula used to create them had created a misleading impression of schools’ performance.

She and other administrators had tried in vain last month to persuade the Board of Education to postpone the grades’ release pending a review of that formula.

Yet, while at least six Board of Education members expressed reservations about the formula, its chairman – Tim Carter, superintendent of Yavapai County schools – said he was under pressure by the governor and the State Legislature to have a grading system released as soon as possible.

And in a press release issued Sept. 27, state board members gave no indication that the grades were only preliminary, saying the grading system had received “national recognition” and “is being heralded by local leaders because it quickly highlights schools that could use additional support.

The release also quoted Carter as saying, “Arizona’s new transparent A-F system has clear objectives and metrics that focus less on the results of one test, but place a greater emphasis on student growth.”

That emphasis on growth is one of the problems with the formula, Vesely asserted, noting it “places a much higher value on growth than it does on proficiency.”

“This makes it difficult for the public to draw conclusions about whether the school is performing to expectations that students meet grade level expectations,” she said, adding:

“The current formula’s growth measure is that of Student Growth Percentiles. It is not a measurement of individual growth nor is it a measurement of a student’s progress in meeting grade level standards.”

She also noted that the formula gives more weight to students deemed minimally or partially proficient than it does to those considered proficient or highly proficient.

“The formula gives growth almost twice the weight of proficiency, thereby diluting the message of accountability for schools that are indeed meeting high levels of success,” Vesely said.

“Leaders at many high-achieving schools – both district schools and charter schools – strongly believe that when proficiency is low, growth should be given more weight, but when proficiency is high, growth should be given less weight. That would be a truly fair solution that considers each of the many types of schools in our state.”

Meanwhile, it may be months before parents and educators have any idea what grade any school in Arizona ultimately will get.

Its memo to school districts said it would wait until December to “provide policy and technical guidance to the (technical advisory committee) for modeling needed to finalize” the grading formula and release final grades sometime after that.

(1) comment

Quinn Robles

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